Criterion Sunday 613: Sommarlek (Summer Interlude, 1951)

One of Bergman’s earlier films, he’s finding his way to some of his most enduring themes here, via the story of a traumatic past haunting the present for a ballerina, Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson). But it’s not just trauma: there are truly happy moments that seem to mock her from the past, as she labours in misery with a rather priggish and accusatory boyfriend (Alf Kjellin). Of course, her first love Hendrik (Birger Malmsten) had his faults too, but the past scenes, teenage years by a lake, lit brightly, with an effervescence to them, feel like a different film (despite the actors being the same). They pick wild strawberries, they go for a swim, there’s a joy that’s clearly lacking in the present day scenes. But light and darkness are intermingled, and the memories of the past can bring respite to us, though as ever in Bergman the solaces of religion are of variable quality.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Writers Bergman and Herbert Grevenius (based on a story by Bergman); Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Maj-Britt Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, Alf Kjellin; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 17 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 604: In Which We Serve (1942)

A solidly crafted flag-waving exercise in wartime uplift, about the way a diverse (well, diverse from a class-based background at least, if literally nothing else) group of fighting men on a navy ship come together through adversity. The film is largely told in flashback as the HMS Torrin lies crippled and sinking after the Battle of Crete, as some of the surviving crew reflect on how they came to be there. Turns out this is a fairly effective narrative strategy, allowing both for the setbacks of war (the sinking of the ship, the loss of life) to intertwine with the duty and service that motivate these men, most of whom are lifelong Royal Navy crewmembers, and the wives and children that wait for them back in England — and indeed, given the fairly limited screen time, it’s the women who give some of the film’s best performances. Writer and co-director Noël Coward himself plays the ship’s captain, which makes sense given his own leading involvement in getting the film made, and he acquits himself well enough, in the soulful vein of a by-the-book type who nevertheless has great admiration for all his crewmembers (except for a baby-cheeked Richard Attenborough, who abandons his post in one memorable vignette), but it’s the emotional story between John Mills and Bernard Miles which is most satisfying. All in all, this is well-made and probably the film for its time, but it’s still pretty boilerplate as a wartime fighting film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Noël Coward and David Lean; Writer Coward; Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Noël Coward, John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 1 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 601: Неотправленное письмо Neotpravlennoye pismo (Letter Never Sent, 1960)

Of Soviet directors working in the 1960s, you hear plenty about Andrei Tarkovsky (and for good reason), but even compared to him there are not many directors that have the kind of visual bravado that Mikhail Kalatozov deployed in his features (like The Cranes Are Flying of a few years earlier). Letter Never Sent is fairly laconic in terms of its dialogue — it follows three geologists and their guide Konstantin (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) as they search for diamonds in a far-flung stretch of Siberia — but you really get the sense of this environment, with elemental forces (fire, earth, snow) competing with one another for primacy over the image. The actual quest itself hardly seems as important as the relationship between these four humans and the impossibly deserted land they find themselves in, and there’s even a bit of critique of the Soviet system, as their work soon gets derailed and they have trouble getting in touch with headquarters. Still, it’s nail-biting thriller territory for the most part, and Kalatozov’s camera gets the most out of its struggle-against-nature narrative.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is one of the more bare bones releases Criterion has ever done, with no additional features aside from a booklet essay. Would that there were more resources detailing the making of this film though, because it must have made for a fascinating story.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikhail Kalatozov მიხეილ კალატოზიშვილი; Writers Grigory Koltunov Григорий Колтунов, Valery Osipov Валерий Осипов and Viktor Rozov Виктор Розов; Cinematographer Sergey Urusevksy Серге́й Урусевский; Starring Innokenty Smoktunovsky Иннокентий Смоктуновский, Tatiana Samoilova Татья́на Само́йлова, Vasily Livanov Василий Ливанов, Yevgeni Urbansky Евгений Урбанский; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 29 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 600: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama stands up even today as a pretty intense piece of work, not least because it was breaking several taboos for its time — in detailing a fairly horrific crime in scientific detail, they were making a film that wasn’t for all ages, and indeed there’s plenty of incidental details to suggest a rather troubling existence. It’s Lt Fred Manion (Ben Gazzara) who’s on trial, for the murder of his wife’s rapist, but it might as well also be Laura Manion (Lee Remick) who is too, given the extent to which she is subjected to scrutiny also (I can’t think of any movie, old or new, which has so relished repeating the word “panties” quite so many times). Of course, the focus is on James Stewart’s defence counsel, who is seen putting on a performance to try and get his client off the charge, and when put together with the rather dubious nature of the reality being deconstructed in this small Michigan courtroom (and this is one of the few films I’ve seen set on the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula of that state), it’s a compelling black-and-white drama that leaves us with no clear conclusions about who’s in the right and who is in the wrong, but it’s an essential film for fans of the courtroom drama.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Otto Preminger; Writer Wendell Mayes (based on the novel by Robert Traver); Cinematographer Sam Leavitt; Starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Arthur O’Connell; Length 161 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 24 December 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2000).

Criterion Sunday 596: 三匹の侍 Sanbiki no Samurai (Three Outlaw Samurai, 1964)

There are no shortage of samurai films (chanbara or sword-fighting films, if you will) in the Criterion Collection, and the more one watches of them, the more you start to perceive certain critiques of contemporary Japanese society within them (perhaps analogous to the US and its Westerns). Samurai can be seen as fiercely loyal, they can follow their own strict codes of morality, or they can be guns for hire, freelance agents recruited by landowners to do their bidding, often oppressing dissent or basically committing assassinations to bolster their retainers’ power. Variations of all these ideas are seen in this film, as plenty of the samurai we see seem motivated by little more than money; the titular three are outlaws, perhaps, in the sense to which they rebel against the interests of landed money in siding with the peasantry (from whom some of these samurai were originally drawn). And so this is a steely black-and-white swordfighting film with a sense of justice in those being oppressed, with some excellent central performances (Isamu Nagato is my favourite of the three), though ultimately it can still function well as a fun fight film (with perhaps over-expressive swordplay sound effects).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This really is a bare bones package, with only a trailer included (aside from some liner notes). It’s an interesting trailer, given that it introduces the three actors in contemporary clothes before we see them in clips from the film itself. But that’s really it.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hideo Gosha 五社英雄; Writers Keiichi Abe 阿部桂一, Eizaburo Shiba 柴英三郎 and Gosha; Cinematographer Tadashi Sakai 酒井忠; Starring Tetsuro Tamba 丹波哲郎, Isamu Nagato 長門勇, Mikijiro Hira 平幹二朗; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 11 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 594: ゴジラ Gojira (Godzilla, 1954)

You could probably argue that this monster movie is a bit too straightforward in its message — the dangers of a nuclear world can unleash terrifying consequences! — but given the context for the film, it’s pretty understandable. There’s a sub-plot about the moral qualms attendant on technological progress in the field of mass destruction, and at no point is it ever unclear what the reasons for all this hand-wringing are, so you can understand why it was heavily recut on original release for the non-Japanese market, given it hits perhaps a little close to home. Still plenty of other movies of the 50s were trading on the fears of an atomic age, including a number of the most prominent American sci-fi and horror features (along with noir gems like Kiss Me Deadly), so it’s not such a big gap to this Japanese film. Of course, the effects now look pretty dated, but the human drama is clear (this isn’t the only film of 1954 from the Criterion Collection that allegorises Japan’s place in the world and stars Takashi Shimura in a leading role, and it may be my favourite of those) and the sense of night-time Tokyo is strong.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ishiro Honda 本多猪四郎; Writers Takeo Murata 村田武雄 and Honda; Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Akira Takarada 宝田明, Momoko Kochi 河内桃子, Takashi Shimura 志村喬; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 3 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 592: Design for Living (1933)

There’s not much of Noël Coward’s text here in Ben Hecht’s screenplay, but I think there’s a spirit that certainly seems to define something of the pre-Code Hollywood output. “No sex,” disclaims Gilda (pronounced with a soft ‘g’, and played by the ever delightful Miriam Hopkins) — and none of course is seen — but the film fairly drips with hints of it, in its story of a love triangle between Gilda and two men she meets on a train to Paris (painter Gary Cooper and playwright Fredrich March). After a bit of comical to-do, first silently and then in French at the start, they realise they’re all American and so we quickly move into the snappy repartee in which the two bohemian artist men woo and fall for Gilda, or rather perhaps it would be more accurate that she’s the one in love and just trying each one out. There’s also Edward Everett Horton in a supporting role, playing his usually prissy company man, whose idea of romance is far different from those of the bohemian boys, and all of them will by the end come to a realisation — one which is made without anyone seriously suffering. This is, after all, a comedy, both in many of the quips but also in the grand sense — the threesome that the film proposes as a design for living becomes a reality for Gilda, and there are few protagonists in this era of Hollywood cinema you more want things to work out for. Ernest Lubitsch is of course the director and has a strong hand in what works about the film, steering clear of anything too outrageous, but still leaving in hefty hints of licentiousness in the set-up. It all looks great and zings along, coasting on the fine performances and the evocation of an era — one that perhaps never quite existed this way, though the film certainly makes you want to believe it did.

(Written on 18 August 2020.)

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Alongside the feature is presented “The Clerk”, a short film directed by Lubitsch extracted from the omnibus film If I Had a Million (1933). It’s an exceedingly high concept, running at just over two minutes. Lubitsch slowly follows the clerk of the title, played by Charles Laughton, from receiving an enormous check in the mail (this is part of the overarching structure of the original film), to travelling up the stairs and through the various offices to that of his boss, to whom he delivers a final gesture. The comedy isn’t so much in what happens, because you kinda know what’s coming, as in the extended set-up to the gag. It’s a simple one, but effective nonetheless.
  • There’s also a presentation by film historian Joseph McBride, who speaks quickly but compellingly about the production circumstances of the film, particularly the nature of its adaptation from Coward’s original. It’s an interesting piece and very good at helping to understand how Ben Hecht got involved, what remained of Coward’s original, how the three primary authorial voices on the film intersected, and what Coward thought of the whole thing.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch; Writer Ben Hecht (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Edward Everett Horton; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 31 May 2014 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 17 August 2020).

Criterion Sunday 591: 12 Angry Men (1957)

This is one of those perennial classic films that always shows up on lists that I’ve contrived never to have seen until now, but I have to say it certainly does hold up — albeit perhaps not legally. However, I do love a chamber drama, and this one, as the title suggests, features twelve men, fairly indistinguishable on the surface though as the film goes on we get to know each one for obviously — this is a basic screenwriting requirements, one imagines — they have quite different personalities. This could be just a writer’s exercise, but it comes alive in the telling thanks to the taut dialogue, the fine, expressive acting (far more the latter for Lee J. Cobb), and sinuous long take camera movements that really serve to open up this claustrophobic and (both literally and figuratively) overheated space. There’s not much reason this should work, but it does so and with excellent economy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sidney Lumet; Writer Reginald Rose (based on his play Twelve Angry Men); Cinematographer Boris Kaufman Бори́с Ка́уфман; Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 19 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 586: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Given when this was made, this remains a fairly terrifying film, but one that nevertheless retains a certain empathy (like the contemporaneous Freaks to a certain extent). That’s not to say it’s entirely unproblematic to modern audiences, but there’s a consistent theme within the film that actually the monsters of the film (its “lost souls”, if you will) are worth protecting and fighting for, as our hero does at several points, much to the annoyance of Charles Laughton’s gentleman scientist who is actually — perhaps itself a commentary on the myth of the enlightened colonial project — quite clearly a monster. Anyone who knows The Island of Dr Moreau knows how this plays out, and it suffers a little from its early sound era origins at times (seeming almost too quiet and slow for our modern tastes), but it’s a great and fascinating early horror movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Erle C. Kenton; Writers Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young (based on the novel The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells); Cinematographer Karl Struss; Starring Richard Arlen, Charles Laughton, Kathleen Burke, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi; Length 70 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 4 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 584: 藪の中の黒猫 Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko (Kuroneko, 1968)

Kaneto Shindo also directed Onibaba, and both are supernatural stories that lean heavily on the quality of the filmmaking for their effect. It’s a film dominated by dark shadows and silence, scenes of great stillness that effectively convey the ghostly conceit of its title characters, avenging angels after a fashion, seeking cosmic redress against all samurai for the misdeeds of a group of them. Like any revenge, this takes its toll on both those doing the revenging as against their victims, but there’s a sense of justice to the punishments they mete out all the same. It ends as mysteriously as it begins but the atmosphere it evokes never falters and it remains a fine example of the ghost horror movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人; Cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda 黒田清己; Starring Kichiemon Nakamura 二代目中村 吉右衛門, Nobuko Otowa 乙羽信子, Kiwako Taichi 太地喜和子; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 1 November 2022.